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The 80 per cent solution

Automated equipment and big data will go a long way in agriculture, but not the whole way

At an official dinner prior to Agritechnica in Germany, I had the good fortune to be seated next to one of the conference’s guest speakers, Dr. Hans Griepentrog. He heads up the School of Agricultural Technology at Hohenheim University in Germany, and his vision of farming technology is definitely a futuristic one.

Over dinner, I had a chance to hear his views on where agriculture is heading. As he sees it, in the future — the not too distant future — farming will be done in a very different way than it is now. Big data rather than big iron will be behind the changes.

Digital technology is changing every industry. Farming has been and will be no exception, says Griepentrog.

“We’re looking not only at what opportunities exist for digitization in agriculture, but in society at large,” he later told a roomful of journalists in a special media presentation. “Agriculture cannot be seen in isolation.”

Before long, farmers will be able to collect more data more efficiently than ever before, and they will be able to make better use of it.

Add that to the replacement of today’s fleet of over-sized farm equipment with small autonomous machines, and farmers of every scale will reap the benefits of improved efficiency and probably lower costs. Even small operations may be profitable.

Still, that doesn’t mean our fields will be like factories, where everything in the manufacturing process can be controlled. Farming will always be different.

“I think automation will only take over 80 per cent of the production,” Griepentrog told me during our evening conversation. “The farmer will still have to do the other 20 per cent.”

He expanded on that idea during his presentation. “When you look at the environment in which agriculture is conducted and products are being produced, there’s a significant difference from industrial production,” he pointed out. “In agriculture, we’re dealing with non-structured environmental conditions. In industry, we have 365 days a year of exactly the same conditions. Temperature and lighting are all things we can control.”

In Europe, there is a much more intense focus on sustainability and conservation of resources in all things, including farming, than there is in North America. Environmental concerns are discussed much more often by most segments of society in European countries. Regulations regarding chemical application and on-farm use and storage are much more stringent, and political leaders feel pressure to continue limiting them.

So it’s not surprising there is a great deal of discussion there on agricultural efficiency. There is so much emphasis on it, in fact, that the Europeans have named this effort to achieve it through the use of greater digital technology: Agriculture 4.0.

In October, for instance, key government and industry leaders actually held a “Farming 4.0 summit” in Brussels to discuss ways to make Europe a world leader in that digital revolution.

This statement in a press release out of that summit describes the potential benefits that these experts see for European agriculture, thanks to digitization: “With robots, intelligent machines and farm management software will arrive in the world of agriculture and transform the sector in hitherto unknown depth. Digital Farming holds the promise of bringing immense benefits to the world of farming by boosting yields, environmental protection, resource efficiency, automation, and transparency in agricultural production.”

According to Griepentrog, digitization shouldn’t be confused with precision farming, which he describes as fine tuning crop inputs and automating equipment. Neither should it be muddled in with smart farming, which involves capturing crop or animal data in real time through the use of sensors.

“What’s new now is digital farming. It’s yet another step on top of the other two,” Griepentrog said during his presentation. “Digital farming comprises three main components that should not be mixed up. One is the internet, ISOBUS, machine-to-machine communication. The second is cloud computing. We won’t be able to live without it in the future. The third pillar is big data. Many people talk about it, but what it really means is one huge component. In other words, if you manage to go through the internet of things and store data in the cloud, then new ways of analyzing it will open up to generate completely new information from the existing data. That’s where big data gives you a completely new advantage.”

Because of that access to big data, he predicts, many operating decisions will be made using a combination of data sources, rather than, say, basing nitrogen rates on just last year’s yield map.

That big leap to big data generation won’t come without some infrastructure improvements, though, and Canadian farmers face the same big limitation as their European cohorts: the lack of good telecommunication networks in rural areas.

“In telecommunications, some areas don’t have very good connectivity,” Griepentrog said. “And another area we’re not entirely satisfied in is having standard data formats. That would allow different programs to interact and have access to the data.”

Griepentrog also threw out another new term during his presentation. At least, it’s one I’d never heard before: Biologization.

As Griepentrog sees it, when you add the concept behind that 10-dollar word with Agriculture 4.0, the whole approach to farming changes.

“With biologization,” said Griepentrog, “there’s going to be a shift in paradigm. What that means is the relationship between nature and technology is going to change. So far we’ve adapted nature a bit to make technology easier to use. But with digitization and all the opportunities it’s going to provide, this will be reversed.”

What he means, for example, is that we won’t need to genetically modify crops to accommodate the use of glyphosate or other herbicides to control weeds. Things like automated equipment using GPS-located seed placement will selectively and precisely plant the optimum crop varieties in the same field.

Real-time sensor technology will allow spray to come out of a boom nozzle only where there is a weed that needs to be killed. Or instead of a sprayer, a robotic machine with weed-detecting software will mechanically remove weeds out of a crop, which could be a real bonus for organic producers.

This is far from pie-in-the-sky thinking. I was at a sprayer demonstration earlier in September that used exactly that weed identifying technology to activate a boom nozzle only when needed, and equipment fitted with weed identifying technology able to mechanically remove it was on display at Agritechnica 2015.

As Griepentrog sees it, all that’s missing is the big data. It’s just a matter of getting all the data captured, combined, analyzed and made available for a variety of uses at the right time. And farmers with similar growing conditions or problems may even want to share their data with each other to help identify best practices and further improve efficiencies.

But that brings up a question: Who will own the big data of the future?

“The big problem is how to keep your data safe,” Griepentrog told his audience. “For example, if you have a custom harvester working your plot (field) and the operator is collecting data, who owns it? That’s going to be quite an issue.”

Regardless of how that ownership argument plays out, and even with all the advances in technology and automation, farmers needn’t feel worried about becoming redundant.

Every farm will still need a real person to make key decisions. In fact, a farmer’s decisions may become even more important, because there will be new risks to consider. Aside from the old problems of droughts, floods and insects, there’ll be new risks with big data. Farmers could find themselves dealing with hackers and cyber attacks from individuals and organizations like extremist animal rights groups.

Said Griepentrog, “We don’t think in the foreseeable future the farmer will be completely replaced, even with automation.”

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CG Machinery Editor

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